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  • The Uses of Chastity: Sex, Law, and the Property of Widows in Qing China *
  • Matthew H. Sommer (bio)

For widows in late imperial China, sex and property were linked in multiple ways. This statement applies to both official discourse and social practice, which influenced each other to such a degree that it is difficult (and perhaps inappropriate) to separate them completely. Qing legal cases involving widows allow us to explore this zone of interplay: between interest and emotion, between official priorities and popular strategies, and between outward representations and closeted lives.

To imperial authorities, the widow constituted an ideologically vital point of intersection between property relations and sexual relations. The “chaste widow” played a signal role in propaganda that tied sexual loyalty (of wife to husband) to political loyalty (of subject to ruler). Ming-Qing law granted widows the strongest rights of any women with regard to property and independence—but these rights depended on chastity, a status violated by either remarriage or adultery: for this purpose, the two acts were simply variations on a theme.

This article begins with the official discourse of widow sexuality and property. But the basic question it tries to answer is what difference such discourse made for ordinary people. How were sex and property connected in their lives, and what relationship, if any, existed between the practical logic of ordinary life and the priorities and pretensions of the state?

One link between property and sexual norms is well-known: it took property to make chaste widowhood a viable option. Therefore, widow chastity served as a status symbol for the elite, while remarriage prevailed among the very poor. 2 The evidence in legal cases gets us further, revealing the logic of [End Page 77] sexual contract that framed the survival strategies of impoverished widows. We begin to grasp what it meant, in practice, for official standards of virtue to lie beyond reach.

But most of the legal action in this area focussed on the young widow who had just enough property to get by, without resorting to remarriage, charity, or prostitution. As long as she maintained her claim to chastity, such a widow might enjoy a degree of independence unusual for women at any level of society. But two factors threatened that independence.

First, there was tension with in-laws. While imperial ideology demanded the preservation of every male line of descent, the surviving brothers of a dead man might have other priorities—especially if they were peasants with little surplus above subsistence. The equal shares brothers received in household division might be small indeed; while surviving brothers may not have begrudged the dead man his share, they might feel differently about his widow. We need not ascribe any great evil to in-laws who eyed a young widow’s property; they simply wished she would begin a new life elsewhere, so that their brother’s assets could improve their own standard of living, however marginally. 3 Some, perhaps, believed this best for the woman herself: young widows seem to have found new husbands easily (given the high male/female ratio), while a single woman might encounter difficulty.

Second, a widow with property was subject to a minimum of direct supervision: she was the patriarchal authority in her dead husband’s household, backed by legal guarantees. This practical autonomy created a space for personal freedom that sometimes produced highly unorthodox results: the independence justified by chastity provided the opportunity for adultery—which, in turn, might jeopardize the very independence which had made it possible.

These factors interacted in various scenarios of conflict between widows and their in-laws. The sexual basis of a widow’s rights to property and independence may have derived from official discourse, but it was well understood by the people (mostly peasants) who appear in legal cases. Whether ordinary people shared official values remains an open and complex question—surely, some did to some degree. But even if they did not, they knew perfectly well that power and property could be secured by invoking such values: usually, the authorities became involved because some party to the dispute sought their intervention as a strategy of empowerment. Conflicts over the status of a...

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pp. 77-130
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